From ‘La Llorona’ to ‘Scream’: Why Latino moviegoers love horror films

·4 min read

On a breezy October night, Mia Soto and her friends flocked to Sacramento’s Tower Theatre to take in a new horror film.

That evening they watched the Icelandic horror film “Lamb,” in which a childless couple discovers a mystifying newborn on their family farm and then suffers terrifying events.

From slasher flicks to films about demonic possession, it’s not the only horror movie she caught this year.

“I enjoy horror movies across the board,” Soto, 32, said. “I find every type of horror interesting.”

Latino moviegoers like her have been over-represented at horror movie showings for years and Hollywood knows it.

Box office figures have shown movies with horror elements resonate with Latinos, whose diverse cultures are steeped in elements of Latin American folklore, magical realism and Catholicism.

“Horror is one of the top genres for the Latino community,” said Ana-Christina Ramón, director of research and civic engagement for the Division of Social Sciences at UCLA.

A 2015 Nielsen analysis found that “horror fans are 23% more likely to be Hispanic than the average consumer and 15% more likely to be African-American.”

On opening weekend of “Halloween Kills,” Latinos accounted for a third of moviegoers, according to exit polling from Comscore/Screen Engine PostTrak, which tracks the demographics of moviegoers across the U.S. Nationwide, Latinos make up about 19% of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Research Center.

A 2021 UCLA Hollywood diversity report Ramón co-authored found 3 in 10 of the most popular theatrical releases among Latino audiences last year were horror movies like “Come Play,” “Gretel & Hansel” and “Brahms: The Boy II.”

In 2019, 6 in 10 were horror titles, including: “The Curse of La Llorona,” “Child’s Play,” and “Annabelle Comes Home.”

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Yet, Ramón said most horror movie casts are not representative of the diverse audiences they attract the most.

“It’s definitely something that I see that (movie studios) haven’t capitalized on, and has been a bit of a missed opportunity,” she said.

What draws Latinos to horror movies?

For generations, families throughout Latin America have passed down tales about monsters and urban legends like La Llorona, El Chupacabra or El Cucuy to their children.

“Part of it is ingrained in Latino culture to have this folklore that’s based on stories that have been passed on for generations that either are meant to instill fear in children and keep them in line,” Ramón said. “Our culture (is) so infused with mythical creatures and legends.”

Ramón is not a horror fan herself, but said her family loves them.

Soto said her appreciation for horror stems from her Catholic upbringing. As a kid, Soto remembers her religious grandmother telling her stories about the forces of evil and the supernatural.

“Catholicism has dark themes,” she said. “There are saints and there are angels. There are also demons.”

One example that comes to mind for Soto is gory depictions of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Soto said her group of friends, who are mostly Mexican American, often attend horror movies together.

As a child, Brenda Salguero, of Sacramento, remembers watching “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” and experiencing night terrors from the film. Despite being fearful, she eventually grew to love the dark films.

In 2018, Salguero, 34, and Orquidea Morales, 36, launched a horror-themed podcast called “Monstras.” Their monthly podcast explores topics like Latino folklore, horror and death. Their first episode about La Llorona, or the weeping woman, is their most popular one to date.

The legend of La Llorona centers on a woman who drowned her two children in a jealous rage and killed herself after she realized what she had done. Her spirit now wanders the Earth crying and searching for her children, according to the tale.

Another reason Salguero believes horror films attract Latinos is that cinema can help people process traumatic events. Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 film “Pan’s Labyrinth,” for instance, depicts a girl traveling to a fantasy realm and encountering mythical creatures while living in Spain after the Spanish Civil War.

“I feel like part of it, too, is the horror that a lot of countries have gone through,” said Salguero, whose parents lived in El Salvador during the Salvadoran Civil War. “I feel like horror might be a way for a lot of people process the trauma.”

Diversity in Hollywood

While horror movies attract large Latino audiences, they are rarely reflected on the big screen, according to Ramón.

Actors in stand-alone horror films are still largely white, she said, but movie executives will often cast more Latinos if the horror movie turns into a franchise.

The fifth installment of the “Scream” franchise, for example, features actress Melissa Barrera, who starred in the highly anticipated Latino blockbuster “In the Heights” this year.

“They are bringing in this Latino element that will definitely be a huge pull,” she said.

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